By Amantha Perera
(IPS): As paddy cultivation revives in Sri Lanka’s former war zones, prospects for the island’s food security have improved dramatically.
Experts say the extra capacity will not only make up for shortages of the country’s staple caused by the twin floods that hit the eastern and central regions this year, but actually provide a surplus.
“I don’t think there will be a shortage this year. The northern harvest is good, it could be better next year,” Nimal Dissanayake, who heads the Rice Research and Development Institute (RRDI), Sri Lanka’s premier rice research centre, told IPS.
Dissanayake had earlier warned that with about one million metric tonnes — representing 30 percent of the annual harvest — destroyed there was a “very real fear” of shortages.
The floods submerged over 700,000 hectares of paddy for close to two weeks, destroying the harvest.
Dissanayake now talks of the possibility of the country not only meeting its rice demand next year but also exporting some varieties.
For the first time in almost 20 years, rice supply from island’s north — areas devastated by a long running civil war — is beginning to reach the national markets.
These new supply lines have boosted the ongoing secondary harvest by 15 percent compared to last year, and by 39 percent compared to the five-year average.
According to data released by the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture, the secondary ‘yala’ harvest in 2011 will reach a record high of 1.9 million metric tonnes.
The country is likely to achieve an overall yield of around 4.2 million metric tonnes, the FAO said, a drop of a mere two percent from 2010, in spite of the flood devastation.
“The deciding factor here is that there is continuous production in the north, and more importantly the production can reach the national supply without any disruption,” Dissanayake told IPS.
Agriculture and fishing were mainstays of the northern economy, even before it was devastated by the sectarian civil war.
Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, who heads the Point Pedro Institute of Development based in northern Jaffna, estimates that over 40 percent of the economy of the north, that was under the separatist Tamil Tigers till the war ended in May 2009, was based on agriculture and fishing.
During the war the industries shut down, but fishing and agriculture continued, albeit with frequent disruptions as the Tigers clashed with the Sri Lankan military.
Also, there were severe restrictions on fishing, including the use of boats powered with outboard motors. Fishermen had to obtain passes to venture into fishing waters.
Agriculture, especially paddy cultivation, was affected by a ban on fertilisers and other agro-chemicals that could be diverted into making improvised explosive devices.
Northern farmers and fishermen also had to deal with a small, provincial market. “However much we produced, we had a very limited market,” Selva Joseph, a farmer from Kilinochchi, the former nerve centre of Tamil separatism, said.
After the vital A9 highway reopened late 2009, the demand for northern produce has multiplied. “Now that we have buyers and supplies coming from outside, we can sell at national rates,” Joseph said. Considerable sums have been spent on assisting the agriculture sector in the former northern war zone. Since early 2010, the government and donors pumped in 20 million dollars to revive agriculture.
Fertilisers worth over eight million dollars have been distributed among farmers, primarily those cultivating paddy.
The U.N. estimates that over 80 percent of the close to 300,000 civilians displaced by the final bout of fighting mid-2009 derived an income from farming.
Over 240,000 acres of land were under paddy cultivation in the former conflict zone and, according to U.N. records, some 200,000 acres have been restored to production.
FAO officials working in the region expect a harvest of at least 100,000 metric tonnes of paddy during the current season.
Fishermen are enjoying a similar revival thanks to the easing of restrictions since early 2010.
“We now transport the catch to other parts of the country and take advantage of a wider market,” Julian Saharaja, president of the Gurunagar Fishing Development Society in northern Jaffna, told IPS.
One major issue now facing the fishermen is poaching by their Indian counterparts from across the Palk Straits. “We might go back to the pass system, so that we can clearly identify the Sri Lankan boats,” Saharaja told IPS.
Dissanayake told IPS that the government should use the increased agriculture and fish produce from the north prudently. “Once normalcy returns, the supply will settle down and careful planning will become necessary,” he said.
With better planning it would be possible to break such market evils as hoarding and the creation of artificial shortages by traders, Dissanayake said.
“What we now need to do is to make sure that we grow varieties that are important and use the increased supply to undermine hoarding,” he said.
In the past Sri Lanka has witnessed instances of wholesale dealers buying up bumper harvests at low cost and hoarding them. They would then release stocks into the market gradually at rates that guarantee maximum profits for themselves.